MADRID — Are we heading for a new Cold War in the Mediterranean and Black seas? Russia's military intervention in Syria has suggested this scenario, along with its growing display of warships and submarines around the Mediterranean, in the Black Sea and at the Syrian port of Latakia (28 miles from Turkish border) — a main "homeport" of the Russian Navy.
This geostrategic situation is evolving while NATO is developing its biggest, most ambitious exercise in more than a decade with about 36,000 troops, more than 140 aircraft and 60 ships from over 30 nations. In addition to NATO allies, participants include Australia, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Finland, Macedonia, Sweden — and Ukraine.
The Trident Juncture 2015 exercise opened Oct. 19 in Trapani Air Base, Sicily, and will be hosted by Italy, Spain and Portugal until Nov. 6.
"We are very concerned about the Russian military build-up," NATO's Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow told reporters. "The increasing concentration of forces in Kaliningrad, the Black Sea and, now, in the eastern Mediterranean does pose some additional challenges."
At the opening ceremony, NATO showed off its airstrike power with Typhoon, F-18, F-16, Tornado and AMX aircraft, as well asMQ-9 Reaper drones.
But two other remarkable events, linked to the Mediterranean scenario, also occurred last week.
On Oct. 20, the US Navy announced the destroyer Ross successfully intercepted a ballistic missile in the North Atlantic Ocean as part of an integrated air- and missile-defense demonstration with eight other nations. The destroyer is based on the Spanish Navy Base of Rota, near the Mediterranean.
"This is the first time a Standard Missile-3 Block IA guided interceptor was fired on a non-US range and the first intercept of a ballistic missile threat in the European theater," the US Navy confirmed only two weeks after four Russian Navy warships launched 26 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea to supposed targets in Syria.
"That launching was a surprising Russian show of force that could have aftermaths also in the Mediterranean Sea where, don't forget it, four US Navy guided missile destroyers are based nearby, in Rota," a top military official told Defense News. "Four destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat system."
Spain and the Netherlands took part in the missile-defense demonstration. Thanks to a provisional upgrade implemented in their combat systems, two Spanish and Dutch frigates were able to detect, track and transmit ballistic missile defense cues to a US Navy ship.
Also on Oct. 20, the destroyer Porter destroyer arrived in Batumi, Georgia, a country that fought a war against Russian forces in 2008 and is attempting to join NATO. Porter is also one of the four destroyers based in Rota alongside Ross, Donald Cook and Carney.
"Porter's operations in the Black Sea are meant to enhance maritime security and stability, readiness, and naval capability with our allies and partners," a US Navy release said.
Is NATO facing a new Cold War scenario?
"We don't believe Russia wants a military conflict with NATO, but yes, we have ongoing activities at other low levels like in Cold War times: management of information, cyber attacks, military spying," a NATO official told Defense News.
"However, there are two essential differences now," the official said. "There is not an existential threat in Europe, and it is now a more regional issue than a fight between two superpowers. This concern has increased with the Russian military intervention in Syria and the threat in Turkey."
The Black Sea, which borders Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, all NATO countries, and also Russia, Ukraine and Georgia, appears to be a key factor in this new NATO-Russia scenario.
In Trapani, a senior official who declined to be identified told Reuters that Russia is using the Syrian war as a pretext to increase its presence in the Mediterranean Sea.
"We have to take into account that Russia is going to have a much more substantial presence with the ability to impede our freedom of maneuver and our freedom of navigation," the official said.
The Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, has become "an armed fortress," the official said.
The continuous presence of an Aegis destroyer in the Black Sea is one of the strategies the US is studying to replace its Patriot missiles, used to protect Turkey, that are being withdrawn.
Trident Juncture 2015 has begun, but no NATO official has publicly claimed Russia is a problem in the southern flank. Vershbow denied the exercise is aimed at a Russian threat.
"Indeed, it is inspired by African countries," he said.
The exercise simulates a conflict in an area of the Horn of Africa and Sudan, with Kamon, Lakuta and Tytan as imaginary countries.